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'We must fight for the removal of all processes that allow the education secretary to determine our teaching practice'

It’s time we demand professional agency. Let's start with the idea that there are 'best teachers'

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It’s time we demand professional agency. Let's start with the idea that there are 'best teachers'

Tes will host a debate next week entitled: "Burn-Out: How Can We Keep the Best Teachers Teaching?" The mere mention of it has already brought a flurry of Twitter responses. Because we all know, don’t we? Pay us more!

So while Craig Kemp, Natasha Devon, Tom Rogers and my Flip the System UK co-editor, Lucy Rycroft-Smith thrash it out on stage, the rest of us will be tweeting along and rooting for our favourite soundbite to hit Top of the Hashtag. So far, so democratic. Or is it?

What I’m certain the panel won’t miss is the chance to question the very notion of ‘best teachers’. As a profession, we are swiftly moving beyond this tired trope. It contributes nothing but feelings of inadequacy that play right into our current staffing crisis. We have no need of it.

Nobody asks how we keep our best doctors practising medicine, or our best lawyers practising law. That is because these professions have strict codes of practice that everyone must stay within, and as long as they do so the question of whether they are best or second-best becomes irrelevant, substituted instead by much better questions: where are they best deployed? What is their specialism? How can they be helped to develop, not just their practice, but as importantly that practice – be it open-heart surgery, or criminal proceedings, mental health provision or divorce litigation?

Nobody asks how to keep our best doctors doctoring or our best lawyers lawyering either. In the discourse of their professions, that’s bad grammar. In our case, many have tried to distinguish the noun from the verb by calling themselves educators, but “how do we keep our best educators teaching?” is a much poorer question than “how do we keep our best teachers practising education?”. The former indicates that the role is somehow bigger than the practice – it demeans teaching while feeding the ego of the practitioner. The latter situates the teacher and her practice into something bigger, something worthy, differentiable, contextual.

If politicians would only just consider a better grammar of education with as much verve as they do better grammar in education, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are.

What is never considered a mark of professionalism in other careers is pay. We often mistake salary for status – and no more so, as teachers, than when we compare ourselves to doctors and lawyers – but when we do so, we make a grave error. We reinforce a number of assumptions that, just like the idea of ‘best’ teachers, contribute to a discourse that denigrates us.

Let me be clear. Pay is important. The fall in our real-terms pay since 2010 is as hard to stomach as it is to pay the bills with. Of that, there is no question. We deserve a pay rise and the fact that we are not getting it is a travesty, especially as we have seen our workload mushroom during the same period (and, lest anyone think I’m taking a party position here, much longer than that, in fact). But it is a travesty on its own terms, not because it bears any relation to our professionalism or our status. It’s not that these two things are separate, but that their relationship is more complex than ‘pay = status’. Let me offer two scenarios to make my point.

First, imagine you’re a teacher in a school in challenging circumstances. Your workload is so intense it is making you fear for your mental health, or your family’s stability, or your ability to even get near starting a family. It includes having to do loads of tasks for the sake of accountability that you know are contributing nothing to your students’ learning, perhaps even restricting it. If I offer you £3,000 right now, will it make all of that go away? Will it make your workload any less unpalatable? Will it make you any more a professional?

Conversely, imagine I carry out a real, honest consultation. Having listened to the voices of teachers, I offer to cancel all but the most basic and necessary accountability measures. Your non-contact time is yours again. Your CPD is in your own hands. Your school and your teaching are no longer to be judged but supported, and you have the time to support others too. I create a system that allows you to feed into policy, curriculum development, research. The trade-off is that you face another five years of below-inflation pay rises. This year, there will be no pay ‘rise’ at all. Will that make you any less of a professional?

Pay is not as good a marker of professionalism as workload is. But neither is as good a marker as agency.

Most of us who chose teaching did so at least in part because it was a profession that offered a good work-life balance. Sure, we get the old chestnut all the time about ‘all the holidays’, and it grates. But is that because it insults us, or is it really because we don’t get them? In fact, even for those of us who do get them, the NFER has shown conclusively that they don’t make up for all the hours we work in term time.

The holidays matter and low pay relative to other professions is a sacrifice we have historically been willing to make for them. If we were a confident profession, being reminded of that wouldn’t grate. We’d celebrate it. Instead, we continue to play into a discourse that says how much we are paid and how many hours we work determines whether we are a profession. It is a discourse that will never permit us to be one, or to work less.

In the two imagined cases above, there is more than a choice between the actions of one secretary of state or another, more than a choice between more pay and less work. The first scenario offers a bribe, only for now, and only for you, to solve someone else’s problem: government PR. The second offers a new deal altogether, for the future and for the profession, to solve everyone’s problem: democratic education.

If we want to keep teachers teaching, and recruit more committed teachers for that matter, it is time we started thinking beyond the imperfect democratic model that has created the electoral bribe and the policy soundbite, the micro-targeting of audiences and the micro-management of workers, ‘deliverology’ and ‘nudge’.

With regard to pay, if it takes strikes to get a deserved raise, then it’s time we showed our solidarity trumps our divisions. That’s what we are unionised for. But if we stop at that, we will have improved little in terms of our professionalism.

Pay is informed by the reports of the independent School Teachers’ Review Body, yet the government sets its remit unchallenged. It’s time we challenged that process, and every other process that lets a secretary of state determine our practice. Accountability must be a double-edged sword, not just a blunt tool to bash us with.

In short, it’s time we demand agency. And while we’re at it, it’s time we joyfully reclaim our holidays.

Imagine what we could do for the grammar of education if we had both.

Join Tes and Cognita at the debate on April 19. Tickets are free, and you can register here. 

JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor of newly published Flip The System UK: a teachers' manifesto, published by Routledge and priced at £14.95

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